Tax cut highlights midyear budget deal

ATLANTA - Weary with wrangling over "pork" projects, legislative leaders have decided to give Georgians a tax cut instead.

An agreement on the midyear budget hammered out by House and Senate conferees late Tuesday night would return to taxpayers $142 million in surplus revenues collected during this fiscal year, resulting in an average refund of about $100 in property taxes.

The full General Assembly is expected to vote on the deal Friday.

"It's very exciting to be able to deliver $142 million back to the taxpayers of Georgia," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, said after the joint conference committee resolved an impasse that has had the Republican-controlled legislature spinning its wheels for three weeks. "It's consistent with the principles that we all share."

The dispute began March 20 when the House approved a midyear budget with about $700 million in new spending.

Both legislative chambers' leaders considered most of those funds necessary, including $164 million for the annual mid-term school enrollment adjustment, $81 million for PeachCare and $11 million for tornado relief in South Georgia.

But the Senate balked at about $200 million that either had been requested by GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue or added by the House. Cagle and others criticized those items as pork projects that shouldn't be part of the midyear budget.

The list included funds to help stage the Tour de Georgia bicycle race, build a series of large boat ramps for the governor's Go Fish Georgia initiative and bolster Perdue's land-conservation program with additional purchases.

The House also put in projects of regional or local interest, including funds to study the Georgia Brain Train, a proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett County, build a sewer plant at a state camp near Covington and support the Water Planning and Policy Center at Albany State University.

Although House leaders pushed hard for those projects, it was the House that made the tax-cut offer that led to the budget agreement.

"We felt the money should be returned to the taxpayers in the form of buying land and economic development projects," said House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram.

But with the impasse over the midyear budget holding up Perdue's $20.2 billion 2008 budget request, Richardson said the two sides needed to settle quickly and work out their philosophical differences after lawmakers adjourn for the year.

"We need to keep talking ... (but) the time to do that is not right now," he said. "The time to do that is the offseason."

Besides the spending items the two sides previously had agreed upon, the compromise midyear budget also includes $46.5 million in startup costs for the new Kia auto plant in Troup County. The conferees also put $9.6 million toward the state's indigent defense program, a figure the House and Senate had been disputing.

Reacting to the agreement Wednesday, Perdue defended his decision to ask for spending projects in the midyear budget and hinted that the process may not be over.

"I thought they were appropriate one-time things," the governor said. "I'm going to look at '07 and '08 together to make a decision on that."

As with most legislation, the governor isn't likely to decide whether to sign or veto the midyear and full-year budgets until after the session.

Lawmakers voted Wednesday to call it quits for the 2007 session a week from Friday.